[Meta Gaming] On Closure

An update of a 2011 piece, which aged badly, but which has come to mind time and again of late, so it’s getting a brush up and scrub down…

I – Follow The Money

An old acquaintance of mine argued, eloquently and at length, that the very concept of a ‘games industry’ leads to bad design. It does this in the cause of creating and maintaining a functional business in order for developers to support themselves.

A business has financial responsibilities; bills, wages, costs, overheads.  To satisfy those responsibilities, the business must continue to produce and sell product, either by creating new product lines (games) or adding material to existing ones. The latter is easier, and follows on the “sequels and remakes for proven success” model at the heart of the creative industries.

However, it results in designs which are at one and the same time bloated (with material released for the sake of releasing something, creating a range) and incomplete (there’ll always be niches left or created, design space forced, new concepts crowbarred in).

I find it hard to disagree with him.

I’ve seen it in tabletop wargames, where an elegant game becomes buried under redundant pieces, competing for ‘slots’. I’ve seen it in tabletop RPGs, where a torrent of splatbooks and supplements convolute rules and settings into incomprehensibility. I’ve seen it in computer games, where expansion packs have given way to DLC, and no game is complete on release.

Don’t think for a second that this is creatively merited. I was finally provoked into revising this piece by this:

Lexa

Now, I don’t remember asking for this state of affairs. I don’t like buying half a game now and half later, in a series of instalments, whether that’s DLC for a digital game or a series of splats and supplements for an analogue one. Nor do I believe that a dearth of releases “kills” a game. I still play games I bought five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, and nothing’s been released for them in years-if-not-decades and they are still playable.

A bit dated, sure, and there’s merit in a revamp of the core product a couple of times in a decade, responding to new thinking and trends – cf. Privateer Press’ gradual drift away from balls-to-the-wall bro-hood, which was funny at the time but kind of embarrassing when everyone’s grown up a bit and we’ve seen the toxicity that bro culture creates.

But there’s a difference between putting out a new version of your core offering every few years and putting out a steady stream of miscellaneous non-essentials in between times, on a schedule, filling slots.

I didn’t ask to have this crap peddled to me – stuff that’s been deliberately left out of the core game to create a revenue stream down the line, or jemmied in later where it’s not needed. Developers apparently didn’t sign up to continue working on the same project indefinitely, chucking out a job half done because everyone expects the thing to be ‘finished’ some way down the line, not with a bang but with a whimper. That can’t be creatively fulfilling, can it?

Who benefits? Follow the money. Who benefits from extending the spending of money and the doing of work? Publishers and distributors.

II – Joker’s Law

To pay your mortgage with your game developer money, and put ‘game developer’ on your CV, and to be introduced at parties with “hi, this is Berk, he’s a game developer” – to develop and be Damned, as Robert Anton Wilson might have said.

Now, this should not be taken as a call for developers to work for the love. Sod that for a game of soldiers. Free labour is a mug’s game; neither ‘the love’ nor exposure are legal tender. As with all things in life, Joker’s Law applies:

C_DoAXYUMAAp2xo

 

Developing a good game takes time, time is money, and too much time spent not making money means having the pay the rent with Bullshit Integrity Dollars, which no nation in the world accepts as viable currency.

If you’re going to sink your time into making a game, that time should be remunerated. If you’re going to sink your time into doing anything it should be remunerated – and there’s the rub.

I detest the idea that we need one job, one stream of income, one vocation by which we can tidily identify (Damn) ourselves and earn our bread, and relegate everything else to ‘hobby’, stream-of-output status.

I am capable of doing quite a few things. I teach, I research, I write, and I play/think about/make stuff for games. Each of these things can become a stream of income, and I can identify as myself, rather than being ‘a teacher’ by vocation whose ‘hobbies’ are literary criticism and gaming. Oh – and I don’t need to do any of them full time. Because my livelihood does not depend on doing one thing, I don’t have to keep doing any one thing to keep the lights on. When it’s time to stop, I can stop.

 

III – One Door Closes, Another Opens

 

The classic model of making and selling games for a living is one of open streams of income – a game is made, and as sales flag, a new product is released for it in order to make more sales and continue paying the wages, bills, rents and so on and so forth.

Now imagine a game which exists, from the developer’s point of view, as a closed stream of income; it is produced, it sells out, pays the bills for a month or two, and then it’s done.  The developer moves on to paying their bills with something else, whether it be making another game or another job entirely.

Infinite extension through deliberate misdesign is no longer necessary because the developer’s livelihood is being assured by other means.  The game, if reasonably solid, can be preserved as a ‘dead’ one, immune to being buggered about with in the cause of generating further products and further sales.

The goal is to balance your time so that game development is not the One Thing you do for a living, which – in theory – means that more of your decisions can be based on good design practice, and you’re less worried about supporting yourself with any given project, because it is not your only means of support.

People manage it. However, they generally manage it because they’re aligned with distributors and publishers. Middlemen. People who specialise in moving money to creators and product to consumers, in managing pre-orders and guaranteeing income while development work is carried out. People who’ve made a business out of these things.

There is merit in this; after all, those labour hours in the early stages deserve recompense, you have to keep the lights on while you’re preparing the product too. I can “publish” my ideas by typing them on here and mashing a button, but people receiving those ideas… well, I have to go around telling people that I exist and have ideas, I have to represent myself to them, and they have to want to come looking for me, and I’m not exactly good at self-promotion, so of course I should work with someone who can do the stuff I’m not good at. These are the “needs of the business” I talked about earlier – and it’s all labour, and Joker’s Law still applies.

But do I work with them, or for them? Do I hire them, or do they hire me? Follow the money. Follow the benefit. Who hires? Who fires? Who drives, and who is driven? Who makes the millions and who lives in the shitbox apartments? Who says whether a game lives or dies – is finished, or unfinished? Who gets to call time and close the project and say “it’s good, it’s complete, it’s done?”

Not the people who want the product, nor the people who create the thing.

Seems to me the middlemen have taken over.

 

 

 

[Meta Gaming] Whither White Wolf?

Thoughts on the new White Wolf, the latest round of Zak-related controversy, the political Gothic and Scandiwegian LARP.

I’ve had this one in the can for a while, waiting for a moment in the content schedule to let it out. One of the downsides of trying to be more pro and organised is thinking “I could post this today but it’s not on the schedule and it’ll crowd out the regular content and argh.” This one has rather blown up – every couple of days something arrives to make it more convoluted – and now I imagine the teal deers are already bounding through the woods. Better to let it loose than wait for breathing room that never comes.

Anyway. White Wolf.

The newer, more Swedish White Wolf

Some years ago I took them to task for repeated botches of their Intelligence + Sound Business Practice rolls, and then I rather lost track of who owned what in the wonderful World of Darkness. I had my Revised books and lucked into a stash of 2e, I could still play my game, the world could go hang.

Since then, Paradox Interactive – the computer game people who were going to make the World of Darkness MMO –    {ETA: I am now aware that it was CCP, not Paradox, who oversaw development of the WoD MMO – thanks to Julius and Charles for the correction} have overseen the rise of a newer, more Swedish White Wolf. These Scandiwegian types seem to be on the ball.

For one thing, they grasp that trying to make a living as publishers of tabletop RPG books is fucking idiotic. It’s a shallow well, and it leads to the promulgation of cruft and splatbooks and shit that’s coming out because you have to try and and sell something rather than because it’s good for the game.

They also recognise that previous White Wolf rulebooks have, for all their charm and impact, aged badly – they are overwrought, poorly laid out, clunky and represent a ponderous too-many-rules style of roleplaying that needs to fucking die.

Finally, they appear to have a sense of social responsibility – a game set in the here and now is obliged to answer the here and now on some level. Oh, and the new head guy who diablerised Achilli or whatever admits the new WoD is a better setting than the old, and he’s rolling with the old one purely because it has greater clout and he can do metaplot stuff without ruining it, because it’s always been metaplot driven. Martin Ericsson is not stupid. May he be blessed with whatever it is that Swedish people like. Now get a shift on and release the Dark Pack guidelines.

Scandi LARP

Ericsson and friends are LARPers. Specifically, they’re Scandiwegian LARPers, which means a particular approach and philosophy is coming with them. This might be a bit different from the “goth scene with combat rules” that this rank outsider has always suspected Vampire LARP to be. (I make no apologies for this: I do not make a convincing vampire in my own person, nor do I do well when confined to a single character for the whole evening. Also, if the DJ drops a Sisters song I reserve the right to job off and wave my limbs around, no matter who says they’re Prince.)

These high-profile mass LARP events are the future for Vampire et al, and despite my personal disinterest in the arena, I think they’re fundamentally a good thing. They create something which can be shown, rather than told about; they are content, and in my day job I have learned that content is king. They rest on a foundation of negotiation, trust and consent – care, rather than justice – which is ultimately quite healthy. If everyone’s in the trust tree, the game can be pushed to its full potential rather than having to circle at the lower tiers because someone doesn’t think it’s fair.

(I might have a ‘wrongheaded’ approach to these things. In my book, everyone involved in a given session of play needs to be more or less on the same level. That means adjusting the group to fit the desired level of play as much as adjusting the level of play to fit the desired group. Know your players, and their boundaries, and don’t be afraid to say “look mate, I don’t think my Thursday night game of elegantly restrained erotic politicism is really the right place for someone who has custom futanari art on all his accessories and a gun catalogue in his rucksack, but how about you come to the all-out Sabbat game on Tuesday and your Lasombra can tentacle-fuck all the goons he likes.” I believe in managing expectations and selecting players so that the X-card is seldom necessary, and if it is necessary, I’ve de facto fucked up somehow.)

Video Games

Instead of being fucking idiotic, the new White Wolf is essentially going to be a video game company. That’ll keep the lights on, and the tabletop stuff will be produced out of the setting bibles that the games will need anyway. Tabletop will be the soul rather than the heart of the beast. This is good business and I’m not just saying that because it means more WoD computer games.

They’ve already released two interactive-storytelling bits, with the third (for Wraith of all things, be still my spectral heart) on the way, and announced a proper computer game… for Werewolf. Well, it’s probably about time. I’ve never been that into Werewolf but I’m willing to be persuaded by a well-tuned, party-based, richly-characterised party-level RPG that illustrates why werewolves are worth giving a damn about.

Notably, Ericsson is picking a side in the kultur wars. This is sure to provoke some delightfully tiresome discourse, but here’s the thing. White Wolf has always been anti-authoritarian, punk rock as fuck, and only just right of Trotsky. If you weren’t expecting the new White Wolf to weigh in as a device for asking questions like “what is the price of achieving one’s political ends through violence” you were tone-deaf from the start. This is what they’ve always done.

Individual storytellers may have tuned that down in favour of scaring the bollocks off their players or seducing goth princesses round candelit tables, but the monsters White Wolf uses have always functioned as political metaphors. Vampires are about class and aristocracy and privilege. Werewolves are about civilisation and the primal imperative and the attempt to control ourselves. Mages are about control of their environment, the imposition of will on the world. Faeries are about the forgotten past and the refusal of beliefs to sit down and die. Wraiths are about loss, and conscience, and our relationship with ourselves – when all’s said and done, can you look yourself in the mirror every morning?

Yeah, they’re about other stuff as well, and they have to function as fun game experiences and all that, but you’re only turning the “Gothic genre as political” slider down – you’re not turning it off.

Preludes – Vampire and Mage

I’ve bought the Preludes and I’ll be giving them a review on the YouTube channel once I’ve had a chance to actually play them. Spending this weekend sorting out a collaboration with another small channel, though, so it’ll be during the week. Early reports suggest it’s atmospheric. It is alleged to make a statement about where White Wolf wants to be in ref. current events, the Discourse, and the great false binary that defines gamerkultur in this foul year called 2017. It may not be a very good computer game though. “Interactive novel” is apparently a better word for it. I suppose we’ll see.

{ETA: Either the PC version doesn’t work very well or I’m stupid. It took two attempts to get the thing running, and the first instruction betrays its ported-from-mobile origins and doesn’t implement well through mouse clicks. I’m not buying the Android version as well, dudes.}

I also gather that Zak Sabbath has been involved in some capacity. Oh dear. Why oh dear? Read on.

Zak S and the Death of the Author

Zak’s involvement makes sense. He’s an award-winning dark talent, a thought leader in the gaming discourse, in contact with the kind of talent and the kind of politics White Wolf wants to be associated with (edgy, confrontational, get-shit-done, Left-leaning art-as-politics – the likes of China Mieville and Molly Crabapple). Getting him on board has a certain “we’re back and we’re so damn good we got this big name D&D guy” flair to it. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see his name attached to the White Wolf revival, since in all respects other than not being D&D it’s very much his jam and I seem to recall he spoke well of Martin’s intentions for White Wolf when the revival began.

His involvement is also an inevitable maypole of controversy, because where he goes, his combative style of discourse goes, and his online persona goes. Said persona is what it is. Zak makes a living by creating content, and therefore his public persona should think itself and what it does are brilliant, and spend a lot of time protecting its reputation from allegations of BadWrong or crime, because that’s how the business has to work. I don’t get on well with Zak’s e-persona, I find him difficult at best to deal with, but I understand why the persona acts the way it does.

However, partly because of the serious allegations made and partly because of the way Zak’s persona operates when responding to allegations, the discussion has become about him and what he’s said and done and what people have said and done to/with/about him. He didn’t start this round, as far as I can tell – this is raking of old muck by people who don’t want to see an alleged/debunked/suspected harasser with a large and vocal ‘fandom’ and ‘hatedom’ given a platform by White Wolf. Nonetheless, muck was raked, and the fellow is professionally and personally obliged to enter the fray and address it, and here we go again.

As ever with arguments on the Internet, it has become a disparate thing taking place on multiple social mediaplatforms, with disparate persons and levels of bias arguing the same thing with different levels of information and input. As ever with arguments on the Internet, it has become a morass of sock puppets, deleted comments, impersonations and obliterations of the paper trail. If you’re half an hour late to the party it’s bloody difficult to establish who said or did what to whom and on what grounds, which also makes proving or disproving the charge of harassment into a right pain in the arse.

{ETA: Moderators on the VtM Facebook Page have deleted the thread to which I linked previously, and issued justification. Now, it’s their page and they can do what they like with it, but I would have welcomed notice so that the discussion – which to my mind was constructive, albeit tense, and nothing like my idea of a ‘flamewar’ – could have been archived for reference. Once a thing has been said it should remain said.}

I know what people are like. Screenshots can be faked, accounts can be created and uncreated with a flick of the wrist, cliques can be mobilised and the facts can be obscured. I hate it. It’s the worst fucking thing about the Internet, and I hate having to expect ill intent on everyone’s part (because presuming good intent has brought me into these shitstorms before, playing a significant role in that nervous breakdown I had recently).

White Wolf claim they’ve investigated and found no evidence of harassment. {ETA: One of the previous victims, David Hill, another White Wolf employee, casts doubt on this claim. Zak’s take on things seems most up to date here.} I have no way of proving a damn thing to my own satisfaction, or knowing who’s doing what and in whose name to who, so… I await to see how this shitstorm turns out. There is no such thing as bad publicity, but there are a lot of j’accuses in the air – not the best start for the new White Wolf.

{ETA: White Wolf issues statement of regret. Read it and make up your own mind. For what it’s worth, this is still mostly muck-raking. White Wolf claim they did the diligence and decided they had more to gain than lose by associating with Zak. From a cultural/political legitimacy point of view they’re right.}

Thank gawd for the Death of the Author, eh? At least it’s intellectually legitimate to talk about the work as detached from its creator, even if Camille Paglia would disapprove. I gather that more hyperactive channels already have their Let’s Plays coming out, but I have a consistent schedule to maintain. Maybe I’ll do Preludes on Thursdays, before the elegantly restrained political eroticism.

{ETA: Either I’m thick as shit or Preludes is badly ported to PC. Possibly both. Either way, clicking on the simulated mobile phone in the PC port (which strikes me as a lazy-ass way to do a PC port) doesn’t seem to do owt. Unimpressed.}

More on this as details emerge.

{ETA: The multiple edits this morning are attempts to fix the formatting of the post – the final paragraphs keep clustering together instead of carriage returning like a good wall of text.}

Fluff, Crunch, Theme, Competition and Balance: Part Two

So, I’ve looked at how GW currently does the business with regards to theme builds: stuff that moves other stuff around in army books.  Now I want to look at how they used to do things: sub-lists.  Semi-official ask-your-opponent-first, or completely-official no-we-won’t-make-you-negotiate-your-goals-like-adults variations on the regular army list, frequently lifting or imposing restrictions on what troops could be included, and occasionally introducing new weapon options or unit types.


The thing is, with those sub-lists, is that they can serve two purposes.  They can take a collection which is deliberately limited by its tight theme, and therefore lacks the range of tactical options that it needs to succeed on table, and they can give it something to make up for that, whether by adding new units or by making existing ones do something different.  They are sometimes a mechanical necessity, helping the kind of player who wants to have it both ways (i.e. to theme their army and actually play the game properly).

If I can draw on a WFB example for a moment, the old Army of Sylvania from Storm of Chaos was one of these.  For those who don’t remember those days, the Army of Sylvania was an Undead Empire army; von Carstein Vampire characters, Zombie militia with halberds or spears, Skeleton state troops with the regular spears or, alternatively, crossbows (yes really), and Grave Guard with great weapons and full plate armour.  Oh, and it didn’t have Necromancers.  It was a list for people who wanted their swooshy-cloaked Vampire aristocrats in charge.  Fine, except that in those days Vampire Heroes didn’t have magic levels, which meant every Vampire Counts army tended to blow its hero slots on Necromancers… remember what I was saying about things that aren’t part of your theme being at the heart of your battleplan in the last entry?  Case in point.  If you felt there was something off-kilter about Necromancers being the most important models in a Vampire Counts army, this was the list for you.

Acknowledging that the design of the regular Vampire Counts book made it reliant on Necromancers (unless you were playing Necrarchs, and frankly even they were a poor substitute), this sub-list shifted the responsibility for anti-magic onto von Carstein Vampire characters (with new Bloodline powers and the first appearance of a very different Drakenhof Banner), added some Bound raising spells via cool themed terrain and a new Bloodline power to help with the generation of new units and the raising of new models into old ones, and opened up access to multiple Vampire Lords to ensure that the absence of a Master Necromancer didn’t cripple the list at 3000 points or above.  Skeleton Crossbowmen took the weight away from offensive spellcasting (and also gave the list something to do in the Shooting phase, which I confess I found rather appealing even if they couldn’t hit squat-all), too, ensuring that it had the all-important mid-range threat.

All of this made the Vampires-without-Necromancers build playable, encouraged extended conversions (since more Empire troops could now be directly represented in the army), tactical requirements all present and correct, without forcing the theme player to rely on out-of-theme units, and it encourages (nay, requires!) the building of at least a few pieces of themed terrain.

Of course, in an ideal world, none of it would have been necessary, since the options needed to build a Vampire-heavy Empire-themed undead army and have it work on the tabletop would already have been in the book.  That’s something GW bore in mind for the seventh edition release and, if you’re asking me, did pretty well at.  Shame they lost the crossbows along the way…

Anyway, that’s a relatively good sub-list.  Sub-lists have a dark side, though, and it’s one which is better illustrated by a return to 40K.

The old Chaos Space Marine codex from fourth edition had eight sub-lists – one for each Chaos Legion, with the Black Legion implicitly represented by the regular army list.  Each sub-list improved access to some pieces and restricted access to others, and most added a new unit or weapon or something to the mix – for example, the Word Bearers gave up the cult troops like Plague Marines or Thousand Sons, and gained a new daemon weapon and morale buff to represent their Chaos Chaplains with, plus increased access to Daemons.

People had been playing, painting, modelling, making up backstories for and generally enjoying Iron Warriors or Word Bearers or Night Lords armies for years, ever since the idea of a Chaos Space Marine army list emerged back in second edition (first edition was a mess as far as design was concerned, with pretty much every Citadel miniature cropping up in some variant Chaos list or another), without needing special rules to ‘encourage’ (read ‘bribe’) them into doing so.

Reading the background, you’d notice that the Word Bearers didn’t devote themselves to one Chaos God, and so either avoid taking cult troops, or take them, paint them in different colours, and make up a little backstory for them being there.  Your Chaos Chaplain might just be an ordinary Hero with a Daemon or power weapon and a conversion field.  You might choose to ally in some Chaos Cultists, the poor souls who’d invited the Word Bearers to their world, or you might prefer Beastmen for a proper raiding force of mutant filth straight out of the Eye.  Oh, and none of this excludes or shorts out any of the tactical choices you have to make, by the way – it’s an open playing field, in which your tactical and thematic priorities can sit side by side, and the only mutually exclusive restrictions are the ones you choose or don’t choose to put there.  It’s a far cry from ‘if you want magic levels in your army, it’s Necrarch Vampires or Necromancers, and your army needs magic levels to function’.

This sort of behaviour was encouraged by the flavour text in the second edition book, too, which had the Night Lords – a very Undivided Legion who aren’t too keen on the idea of Chaos Gods – invading a planet with all manner of cult troops (in particular a very strong Berserker contingent) temporarily allied with them.  Most of the army shots featured things like Iron Warriors and their Plague Marine mates shooting up hapless Imperial defenders, while the featured list was a pure Night Lords force, just to show (show, not tell – this is all implicit stuff that the reader was expected to absorb and work out on their own behalf) that the pure one-Legion force was acceptable too.

In fourth edition?  Nope.  Each Legion’s preferences were clearly delineated and defined by sub-lists, with no officially sanctioned movement between them (yes, you could fanhammer it, but I’ve never been keen on house rules as a repair job for bad design – for one thing, at the time I wasn’t able to play games in my house).  It was like playing a loyalist Marine Chapter!

Of course, you could just use the regular list, paint your Undivided Marines as Word Bearers and your cult troops in whatever colours you wanted, and hope that you didn’t run into the sort of stunted imagination that would give you an earful about how “you should use the proper Word Bearers list if you want to use Word Bearers, your Word Bearers aren’t fluffy, so you are a beardy cheesemonger and you probably got your list off the Internet…”

Needless to say, that was a fool’s hope.  Instead of something that was its own reward, something you did because you’d found something you liked and chose to think about some more, theming an army list became something that you were told how to do, and NO OTHER VARIATION WAS ACCEPTABLE.  Woe betide you if you actually wanted to play Black Legion; the Chaos Unlimited list was damned by assocation in the small minds of many, and became an invitation to harangues about WAAC, the joys of fluff, how you were lazy and inadequate for using the main list (yes, really, even if all you had to do to reach the esoteric joys of the Magical Theme was to turn the ruddy page).

All this is being charitable and assuming that there aren’t balance issues between the sub-lists – which there were, by the way, because having to test nine army lists rather than one for a new release is going to put a bit of a strain on things.  I’ll just say ‘four Heavy Support choices’ and leave it at that.  Frankly, I think theming should be its own reward, and not something you do because you want access to a particularly powerful set of special rules – I tried out the Army of Sylvania because I’d been building an Undead Empire army anyway and wasn’t keen on Necromancers being my most important pieces, not because I had an urgent desire to own the scene with Dire Wolf spam and multiple Black Coaches.

There’s nothing wrong with building a themed army and wanting it to do well for itself, of course, and a good, open army book will allow you to do this without either bribing or straitjacketing you into making particular choices.  Such a book won’t need sub-lists, because it’ll be possible to turn it every which way and that and make tactically sound or unsound choices as you see fit – ironic, really, that the basic fourth edition Chaos Codex was actually that kind of book.  There is something wrong with using the theme rules just because you want twelve Obliterators for this year’s tournament list, though, and there’s definitely something wrong with snorting through your nose because someone wants Plague Marines and Word Bearers on the same battlefield.